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Review by Joshua Gibbs
A little less than a decade back, the greatest Christmas movie of all time came and went with disappointingly little fanfare— I say “disappointingly little” despite the fact two dozen top American film critics put it in their top ten lists at the end of the year. A few of their reviews dabbled in the political themes of the film, and Alfonso Cuaron was hailed as a fine new “world cinema” director for his extended shots and technical proficiency— but really, if there was a film in the last several decades which should have brought moviegoers to their knees, Children of Men was it. Sure, the film deals with immigration and xenophobia and plenty of other “timely” issues, but Children of Men is “timeless” in a truly theological sense of the word.
“Timeless” is a rather bland adjective to describe it, though, unless a moment is spent investigating the concept of timelessness.
Christianity acknowledges at least two very different conceptions of time. Kronos is earthly time, sequential time, time as it pertains to finite things which are ephemeral and passing away. Kronos is the god who gives with one hand and takes with the other. All finite things emerge in Kronos, and then, at some later point, the corruptions of Kronos overwhelm finite things. Kronos is chronological. First, a thing is born, then it matures, then it falls apart. Kronos governs the world under the sun. Kairos, on the other hand, is time over the sun. Kairos is heavenly time, God’s time, infinite “time.” Kairos is not chronological. Within Kairos, all things happen at once. Within Kronos, we say, “Christ was born two thousand years ago” come Christmas Day. Within Kairos, we say, “Christ is born today” on Christmas Day. If we would live eternally, we must store our lives in Kairos, where thieves do not break in and steal. Kronos employs rust and moth to destroy. Children of Men is the story of a man enslaved to Kronos who, through the life of a miraculously born child, is delivered from bondage into the liberty of Kairos.
In the year 2027, not a single child has been born in eighteen years. The narrative is curiously devoid of any attempt to explain why this is, thus leaving the viewer with the difficult task of deciding whether the reason for human barrenness even matters, and if it does, what that reason is. Given that Children of Men is based on a novel by the late, devoutly Catholic writer PD James, I have my suspicions that the reason no child has been born is rather obvious. Man has simply killed them all, yet excuses himself of any culpability by pretending the matter is a great mystery. The guilty are always eager to get to the bottom of matters in as scientific and rationale a manner as is possible. We are all Herod. We are all terrified of innocence and horrified of angels. Children of Men is rife with death camps, senseless slaughter, politicking, opportunism and human trafficking. Perhaps men have killed all the unborn, or perhaps men have successfully made the world such an unappetizing place to be that the souls of the unborn have conspired to stay in the Empyrean until everyone down here cleans up their act.
Theo Faron (a dour Clive Owen) is a former political activist become government lackey who takes a bribe offered by his ex-wife Julian (Julianne Moore) to secure transit papers for a young refugee, named Kee, though Julian doesn’t offer a clear explanation of the refugee’s importance. Theo is a disillusioned desk jockey burned out on high ideals who wastes his days away inventing excuses to leave work so he can get drunk. On a television in Theo’s dumpy apartment, Cuaron lingers on a commercial for Quietus, a painless suicide pill, and the commercial has the mood and style typical of an irritable bowel syndrome medication ad. Life itself has become a somewhat common disease. That we see the commercial while in Theo’s apartment is significant of Theo’s life. He is no different than anyone else. His decision to keep on living is purely arbitrary.
Julian is the head of the Fishes, a formerly-terrorist-now-activist group interested in Kee, whom Theo will transport. While en route to the coast of England, where a ship from Portugal will take Kee to a safe location, their car is attacked by a band of masked thugs. Julian is killed, and another Fishes member (Chiwetel Ejiofor as Luke) travelling with them advocates a nearby safe house where they can regroup. Up until this point, Theo is baffled as to the Fishes’ interest in Kee. She is an illegal immigrant trying to escape a British ghetto (where she would be sent if discovered), but Theo knows the Fishes well enough to know they don’t deal in concerns so small. At the safe house that evening, in a barn surrounded by livestock, Kee disrobes before Theo and shows him her pregnant belly. “Jesus Christ!” Theo exclaims, and the Fishes’ interest in Kee becomes clear. If her pregnancy became public knowledge, the British government would be ashamed of their anti-immigrant policy; the only fecund woman alive comes not from British stock, but from a despised and rejected people from across the water. She would be exploited or killed or both. Further, official English propaganda runs a constant loop of PSAs teaching that England is the last sane country left in the world, and what would it mean if man’s last hope was trying to escape the violence of the Sane State for Continental Anarchy? But then Theo discovers the attack earlier in the day was staged by the Fishes to get the idealistic Julian out of the way so the remainder of the group can use Kee for their own selfish ends.
The whole setup recalls a remarkable passage from WH Auden’s For The Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio, in which a very reasonable Herod explains why it is for the good of the world that the Christ be killed. Herod presents himself as a successful politico who is dealing with the mayhem of the world with a suitably iron fist. If God comes as a Man, the stability which Herod and all his ilk have struggled to achieve through coercion will be overthrown; Herod comes to kill for our own good. The speech obliquely draws on “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov. While the idea that everyone wants Kee’s child for their own benefit lurks beneath a host of conversations in Children of Men, we might take a step back and look at all the British State has accomplished in the two decades since the last child was born. All subjects are under lock and key. A permit is needed to travel around the country. Everyone depends on the State for both drugs which provide temporary relief from anxiety (that pill is called Bliss), as well permanent relief from suffering (the aforementioned Quietus). While it is conceivable Kee’s child is desirable to research and test that barrenness might be overcome, in our own world intentionally slaughtering children is currently considered a good for society, so it might be that Kee’s child needs protection from those who would simply kill it to restore order.
In the early morning, Theo, Kee and Miriam (Kee’s midwife) escape the Fishes’ safe house in a humble, dilapidated car (would it be too much to suggest it’s the automotive equivalent of a donkey?) and head to the home of Jasper Palmer (Michael Caine), a friend of Theo’s who despises the government and lives in a comfortable hole in the woods. In the midst of the escape, Theo neglects to wear shoes and spends the rest of the film trying to find a pair. That he is shoeless from the time he pronounces the unborn child in Kee’s womb “Jesus Christ” suggests the significance of his mission. Like Moses, who removed his sandals when standing near the Lord, the holiness of Theo’s mission is revealed in his bare feet.
Jasper is a tough nut to crack. Caine plays Jasper like a batty old college philosophy prof. He dresses in long sweaters, wears his hair in a white fray, smokes ganja and listens to Aphex Twin. Jasper’s home is one of two truly safe houses were the Holy Family takes a break amidst their journey to the sea— the other is the apartment of a Russian Orthodox family within the death camp where the Family briefly resides while fleeing kidnappers. Given the Advent qualities of the story arc, Children of Men reimagines a journey out of the old covenant into the new. Jasper stands in for the virtuous pagans of old, tending to his nearly comatose wife with the patience of Sisyphus, biding his time until a righteous judge can solve the unsolvable riddles of his life. After numerous viewings of the film, though, I’ll confess I am unremittingly disappointed that Jasper feeds his senile wife Quietus just before stepping out on his lawn to defy the authorities. Jasper’s protest against the tyranny of the world is admirable, though flawed; in the end, he uses the state-sponsored instrument of slaughter to spare his wife additional suffering. He caves. The mineral jasper is red, the color of flesh, and Jasper Palmer is limited to a fleshly, earthly logic. He tells the story of Theo and Julian meeting, falling in love, having a child and then losing that child:
Julian and Theo met among a million protestors in a rally by chance. But they were there because of what they believed in in the first place, their faith. They wanted to change the world. And their faith kept them together. But by chance, Dylan was born. He was their sweet little dream. He had little hands, little legs, little feet. Little lungs. And in 2008, along came the flu pandemic. And then, by chance, he was gone. You see, Theo's faith lost out to chance. So, why bother if life's going to make its own choices?
While he is benevolent and self-sacrificial and behaves better than his ideals, Jasper is something of a nihilist. From a safe distance on a high ridge, Theo halts the escape and watches Jasper confront the would-be kidnappers. “Pull my finger,” Jasper tells one of them. Then they kill him. Is this a meaningful death, given that he is buying time so Theo can get away? Is Jasper mocking the seriousness of his killers? Or does he die an absurd, undignified death— frittering away his final moments with a crude joke? Theo seems perplexed by these questions as he angrily gets back in the car, telling Kee that Jasper is “fine. Everything’s fine.” From this moment on, Theo knows that he will die, as well. His teacher is dead, and he will die as well. He already knows evil men are after his life, but it is here that he begins grappling with the fact that protecting Kee will cost him his life. Will his own death be meaningful? Does he believe that faith is powerless against fortune? Why should he bother helping Kee if fortune will have her way, regardless of his efforts? Will he live up to his name?
The name “Theo Faron” loosely means “God’s handsome servant.” Like Joseph the Righteous, Theo is the custodian of a pregnant woman. The pregnant woman whom Theo must protect is Kee, which might be a homophone of “key,” in the sense that she is integral and of greatest importance. Or she might unlock the future. Or “Kee” might be a play on “chi,” the first letter of “Christ” in Greek. Theo does not begin the film as a servant of God, but a servant of himself. After Julian dies, Theo retreats to a private place in the woods to drink from a flask. Like Jasper, Theo wants escape from his suffering and has little interest in confronting evil. As the possibility of returning to his maudlin life is taken away from him, he turns more and more surely to the work of giving his life away. He will never speak like an idealist. The desire to “change the world,” as Jasper describes it, has gone away entirely and will not come back.
The older I get, the more I find the desire to “change the world” most often emerges from First World persons reflecting on the miseries of the Third World. People who speak of changing the world are not on the verge of death, but have long, healthy and productive lives ahead of them. Granted, this is not true in every use of the maxim, but most Americans take quite seriously the notion that living a good life means “making the world a more beautiful place.” You’ll find the injunction often enough in children’s literature. We assume it is written somewhere in Scripture.
But it’s not. And that’s okay. And that’s what Children of Men is about.
Two thousand years later, the world is still caught up in the same ancient evil which kept Herod up late. Every man is still ravaged by the memory of an ineffable tragedy. The earth is ever on the brink of complete collapse. These things do not change. Oh, a moment of relative peace here, a respite from war there, but the brutal and relentless Kronos restates the rules of his finite game every time there’s a bill we can’t pay. The City of Man is a closed system. Haves and have-nots. Things don’t get better. Things don’t get worse. Things remain things. Awaiting the return of Christ requires patience. Awaiting the return of Herod does not.
Children of Men is a denial of “the dominion mandate,” at least it is typically stated. To Adam, God says, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it." To Noah, God merely says, "Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth." Why does God not reiterate the command to subdue the earth to Noah? Because Noah is subject to death, which means he cannot subdue the earth. The earth will always subdue man first. "What do people gain from all their labors at which they toil under the sun? Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever,” teaches Solomon. Though the animals are man’s humble servants, "Humans have no advantage over animals," writes Solomon later. When God tells Adam, “…from dust you came, to dust you shall return,” God takes the dominion mandate from man and gives it to the earth itself. The tyrant gains the whole earth and loses his soul; in selling his soul, the tyrant buys a stake in the dominion mandate of the earth and begins swallowing up men, just as the earth swallows up men. However, in losing his every reference to Kairos, the tyrant ultimately falls prey to the same system he has perpetuated. Theo and Kee don’t surrender to the forces of the inevitable, though neither talks about saving the world or making the world a more beautiful place. Theo’s fight against evil is the working out of his salvation. He does not speak of saving the world, or hope for the future of finite things. While he is chained to whiskey and cigarettes early in the film, once he and Kee arrive in the Bexhill refugee camp, he begins dispensing his smoke and drink as bribes to secure a better place for Kee to deliver her child. These are acts of faith. Only God can repay his sacrifice.
For the few tired souls huddled together on the straight and narrow, the birth of a child— any and every child— is a sign that God has not abandoned us, despite our wishes to the contrary. By the time Kee gives birth, the child seems like any other child ever born. No special sign attends her birth. Mother and Theo respond to the little body the way all parents respond to little bodies, with joy and sublimity. We may hope the little girl will live forever. In reality, it seems none of them will last more than ten minutes. Yet, we cannot hope than any human being will never die. Death awaits Kee and Theo, in ten minutes or forty years. At the same time we want them all to live, the emotional contours of Children of Men flow seamlessly into the theological form of the story. As with the best stories, we are taught not to care so much about whether the hero lives or dies before the credits, but simply that he do good. Generations come and go, and the earth abides to swallow them up forever. Why bother if life's going to make its own choices? Because there is another world and another life over the sun. It is enough to see Kee’s child born. It is enough to see Mary and Joseph rejoice. God’s favor is confirmed. Infinite life is sympathetic to finite life. In the Incarnation, Kairos opens up Kronos from the inside. The earth passes away, but the Word of God never passes away.
In the final shot of the film, Theo and Kee and the newborn Dylan wait in a little ark out in the water as the Portuguese ship Tomorrow draws near to take them to safety. Kee sees blood mingling with the water in the shallow boat and believes she is dying, but the blood is Theo’s. In trading his own life for hers, their blood is briefly indistinguishable, as are their very lives. Has Theo made the earth a more beautiful place? Yes and no. Jets streak over their heads and destroy the ghetto, and yet, as Oskar Schindler once said, “He who saves one life saves the world entire.” Herod always shows up to exact his due, and with every innocent life lost, Rachel can still be heard weeping. Theo goes on to the next life to stand as a witness of those tears in the heavenly courts— to play the part of Abraham and plead that God should save the City of Man for the sake of a few righteous.